Friday, October 27, 2017

Who Tells Your Story? Alexander Hamilton’s 230-year-old Federalist Papers: A Story for Our Time

The Federalist: A Collection of Essays, written in Favour of the New Constitution


“Who Tells Your Story?” is a central theme in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway blockbuster Hamilton: An American Musical, currently touring in California. It also thematically links CHS’s current exhibitions Alexander Hamilton: Treasures from the New-York Historical Society and Meanwhile Out West: Colonizing California, 1769–1821two colonial stories, eastern and western, that provide perspectives beyond unbiased and objective historical records.

Two hundred thirty years ago today, on October 27, 1787, a story with considerable impact on our new nation began, not in the halls of entertainment but in the theatre of political writing and discourse. It was a passionate story of support for the newly conceived United States Constitution—a document proposing a unique though unexpected way to govern our newborn union.

The story opens with the publication of the first of eighty-five articles in The Federalist (later The Federalist Papers), which promoted the ratification of the Constitution. Authored by Founding Fathers Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison under the pseudonym Publius (Latin for “public”), The Federalist was written over ten months, between October 1787 and May 1788, to influence the ratification debate primarily in New York.

Title page, Publius, The Federalist, vol. 1, 1788

Rare Books and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

Alexander Hamilton (c. 1755–1804) wrote a majority of the articles, including the General Introduction, in which he urged his fellow New Yorkers and countrymen to adopt the Constitution: “I am convinced that this is the safest course for your liberty, your dignity, and your happiness.” Ratification, he wrote, “speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the UNION, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world.” He further explained: “For nothing can be more evident, to those who are able to take an enlarged view of the subject than the alternative of an adoption of the new Constitution or a dismemberment of the Union.”

John Trumbull (American artist), Alexander Hamilton, after 1804
New-York Historical Society, Gift of Thomas Jefferson Bryan, 1867.305

The Constitution's sole signatory from New York, Hamilton had returned to the state from the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia facing strong opposition from Governor George Clinton, his widespread anti-Constitution followers, and his threatening political machine. Undeterred, Hamilton engaged Madison and Jay in the herculean effort ahead of him.

Signatures of the United States Constitution, detail of page 4

Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration
Despite The Federalist’s high-brow approach, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay achieved their goal three weeks after their last paper was published, when on July 26, 1788, in the Poughkeepsie Court House, the State of New York ratified the Constitution and became the eleventh state of the Union.

Even before New York’s ratification, Hamilton was honored during the city’s July 23, 1788, Federal Procession, a celebration following the Constitution’s ratification by New Hampshire. His image, as reported in a history of the city, “was carried aloft on banners in every part of the procession, the Constitution in his right hand and the Confederation in his left. He had to all appearances turned the scale for the Union, and fame was indeed crowning him with well-earned and enduring laurels.” The procession’s centerpiece, the Federal ship Hamilton, fired 13-gun salutes, one for each state, from its position on a platform drawn by ten horses. The ship anchored at the Bowling Green, “amidst the acclamations of thousands,” remaining on view until June 30, 1789.

Unknown artist, The Federal Ship Hamilton, c. 1877

As biographer Ron Chernow has written, “Americans often wonder how this moment could have spawned such extraordinary men as Hamilton and Madison. Part of the answer is that the Revolution produced an insatiable need for thinkers who could generate ideas and wordsmiths who could lucidly expound them.” Indeed, Hamilton served as General George Washington’s aide during the Revolutionary War, the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury under President Washington, and New York State assemblyman; he was founder of the Bank of New York, a designer of the two-party system, and a proponent of ending the legality of the international slave trade.

The impact of The Federalist was immediate. Not only did it influence ratification, the publication’s title became the name of the pro-Constitution movement and, later, Hamilton’s political party (1789–1824). To this day, The Federalist Papers is considered a masterpiece of political thought, renowned, Chernow points out, “as the foremost exposition of the Constitution.”

Two Bay Area students look at the Federalist papers in the current California Historical Society exhibition,  Alexander Hamilton: Treasures from the New-York Historical Society 
In today’s volatile political climate, when we weigh what seems like multiple interpretations of our nation’s rules of law, we might think of the story of The Federalist as one of indefatigable patriotism. But politics aside, we are, Chernow reminds us, “indisputably the heirs to Hamilton’s America, and to repudiate his legacy is, in many ways, to repudiate the modern world.”

Shelly Kale
Publications and Strategic Projects Manager
Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin Books, 2004)
Martha J. Lamb, History of the City of New York: Its Origin, Rise and Progress, vol. II (New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1877; reprint 1921 by Valentine’s Manual, Inc.);
Nation at the Crossroads: The Great New York Debate over the Constitution, 1787–88;
The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Federalist Papers, by Alexander Hamilton and John Jay and James Madison;

HAMILTON: A Life in Documents:

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